BUENOS AIRES -- It's hard to wrestle with the crucial moral and cultural issues in modern Argentina without getting Catholic and Protestant leaders into the same room.
During one tense gathering, some Catholic speakers kept referring to decades of rapid growth by "evangelical cults" in Latin America. The assumption seemed to be that evangelical Protestants were all the same, with no real differences between, for example, the freewheeling "prosperity Gospel" preachers and ordinary Protestant flocks.
This went on and on and evangelical leaders started feeling attacked, said the Rev. Nestor Miguez, president of the Federation of Evangelical Churches of Argentine.
Then, during a break, a crucial player pulled him aside. Expressing sympathy, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio asked for a short paper describing how different evangelical groups "understand themselves and how they see themselves as part of church life in Argentina," said Nestor, speaking through a translator at a conference this week on "Journalism and Religion in Latin America."
"It is clear that he took this seriously because I can still recognize some of the language from that little three-page paper in his remarks about evangelicals and other churches, even now as Pope Francis," said Nestor, of the Evangelical Methodist Church. "This is crucial. This is a man who truly listens. He is not pretending to listen. He is listening. ... This is at the heart of who he is as a man."
According to several conference speakers who knew Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, it isn't surprising that his first major papal statement -- an "apostolic exhortation" called Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel") -- focuses on pastoral issues facing priests, bishops and laypeople. While the document addresses hot topics such as abortion, economic justice and the role of women, the vast majority of its 217 pages focus on missions, evangelization, preaching and pastoral care.
The pope tweaks "sourpusses" in the church who resemble "Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter." A true evangelizer, he adds, "must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!" In one passage, Pope Francis describes the "biggest threat of all" in church life, which is a "tomb psychology" that slowly "transforms Christians into mummies in a muse¬um."
The pope adds: "Here I repeat ... what I have often said to the priests and laity of Buenos Aires: I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rath¬er than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security."
While repeatedly defending Catholic doctrines, Pope Francis also pleads for Catholics -- including at the Vatican and in the papacy -- to seek innovations in structure, communications and pastoral care in the name of effective missions and evangelization. Catholic leaders must not be content to address the people still in their pews, but dare to reach out to marginalized Catholics and to all who are open to conversion.
Otherwise, the church can become "a museum piece or something which is the property of a select few. ... This way of thinking also feeds the vain¬glory of those who are content to have a mod¬icum of power and would rather be the general of a defeated army than a mere private in a unit which continues to fight. "
The "museum" references may be linked to Latin America, said the Rev. Salvador Dellutri, a Church of the Brethren pastor who worked closely with Bergoglio on projects for the Argentine Bible Society. While the future pope led an institution with great prestige due to centuries of ties with the political and cultural establishment, he was increasingly candid about his church's struggles in an age of globalization, moral relativism and mass media.
"He worries about a kind of fake Christianity that in the past became a way of life for many," said Dellutri, through a translator. "But if people are worried that Francis wants to turn the Catholic church into some other church, this is not going to happen. ... This pope remains close to the doctrines of his church. Divorce is a sin to this pope. Abortion is a sin to this pope. But he wants to express mercy to sinners and, if possible, to bring them into the church.
"You cannot say this too much: This man is a pastor. He wants the church to be known more for its actions than for its words."